Breeding disaster averted on coast in Northumberland

A little tern and chick.
A little tern and chick.

One of the UK’s rarest seabirds has been saved from a disastrous breeding season by the efforts of staff and volunteers from the Northumberland Little Tern Project.

This year, 49 little tern chicks fledged along the Northumberland coast at the National Trust’s Long Nanny site in Beadnell Bay and Natural England’s Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.

This figure is significantly down from last year’s record-breaking 89 chicks, but the situation could have been far worse. the season started poorly when only 44 pairs arrived, compared to 65 pairs in 2014.

The breeding season was put in further jeopardy when storm-induced high tides flooded the scrapes and washed away many of the little terns’ eggs, but dedicated rangers, shorebird wardens and volunteers took measures to save the eggs.

This included providing boxes for the birds to nest on, which raised them above the level of the rising water and also using trays to relocate nests away from the tidal zone.

The team also helped to keep nests and chicks safe from predators and ensure that beach users could enjoy the special wildlife without causing disturbance. This involved using fencing and information signs around the site, engaging with visitors on the beach and at special viewing points.

Natural England and The National Trust have been working to protect little terns in Northumberland for many years. However, Last year saw the launch of the Northumberland Little Tern Project, a five-year project funded by EU LIFE+, which has enabled these organisations to ramp up their efforts to help these endangered seabirds.

A partnership between the National Trust, Natural England, the RSPB and the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership, the Northumberland Little Tern Project provides funding for extra seasonal staff to protect the nest sites, as well as additional fencing to enclose established and potential nesting areas.

Fencing is a valuable method of protecting breeding areas as it reduces human disturbance and predation and can provide new nest sites for little terns. This season, three pairs of little terns were seen showing interest in an area of beach that had been fenced off in 2014, giving Little Tern project staff reason to hope that birds may breed there in the future.

Chantal Macleod-Nolan, EU+ Life Little Tern project co-ordinator, said: “The endangered little tern has become increasingly vulnerable because of the loss of its breeding areas, which can be attributed to erosion, high tides and disturbance by beach users.

“Their numbers at these Northumberland sites have unfortunately declined from last year and this season, in particular, our breeding little terns have faced difficulties from the impact of high tides and food availability. The combined efforts of our dedicated rangers, wardens and volunteers are essential in helping to ensure the long-term survival of little terns.”

Brad Tooze, Natural England area manager, said: “The little tern is one of Britain’s rarest and smallest breeding seabirds, with populations having declined as they struggle to find safe places to nest. The Northumberland Little Tern Project is invaluable in helping protect the future of the species on our shores and evidence gathered by wardens and volunteers is helping us understand their productivity on Northumberland beaches, providing the basis for enhancing their long-term survival. Given the extreme weather they faced this spring, the number of fledged chicks is a real achievement.”

Rebecca Hetherington, head ranger for the National Trust on the Northumberland coast, said: “The 2015 season was mixed for the little terns, with unseasonable weather conditions, strong tides and many predators. However, thanks to the dedication of the National Trust Rangers, 14 chicks were fledged from the Long Nanny Site. Hopefully with the help of this partnership project the little tern will have a good future on the Northumberland coast.”